Best managers of the first half

Valentine has endured lots of drama in the first half and yet, Boston remains in contention. Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Joe Girardi is having perhaps his best season as manager of the New York Yankees, guiding them to the American League’s second-best record. In Texas, Ron Washington leads the league’s best team with three starting pitchers on the disabled list. However, when you manage two high-payroll teams that are stacked with some of the game’s best players, it makes life a little easier. Here are six other managers (three in each league) who have done very well with much less than what Girardi and Washington have. They are my choices for the best managers in baseball thus far in 2012.

American League

1. Bobby Valentine, Boston Red Sox

Fans and the media have criticized Valentine more than any other manager this year. However, when the dust settles, the fact remains he’s been the AL’s best manager in the first half of the season.

It has been a Boston baptism by fire for Valentine, as he’s had to contend with major injuries to his bullpen (Andrew Bailey), outfield (Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury) and starting rotation (namely Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz), unpopular trades (Kevin Youkilis) as well as failed trades (Marlon Byrd), and rotation experiments (Daniel Bard). He inherited unhappy coaches and players who obviously weren’t ready for a new leader and a different way of doing business.

Despite all of this, Valentine’s squad sits 38-34, a mere 1 1/2 games out of the second AL wild-card berth.

Valentine has done a tremendous job of managing his bullpen. Alfredo Aceves has been a revelation as the closer, going 18-for-21 in save opportunities. Scott Atchison, Matt Albers, Rich Hill and Andrew Miller all have ERAs under 3.00. Their success stems mostly from Valentine’s ability to put pitchers in the best position to succeed. Will Middlebrooks and Felix Doubront are developing into good big leaguers while the decimated outfield has somehow helped contribute to an offense that has scored the second most runs in baseball. Love him or hate him, Valentine has this team within striking distance of a wild card berth despite a plethora of obstacles.

2. Buck Showalter, Baltimore Orioles

Showalter finishes a close second to Valentine. His leadership in rebuilding the Orioles has been as extraordinary as the job he did previously for the Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers. He’s one of the best in the game in taking expansion or low-level teams and turning them into contenders. Showalter is one of the game’s best when it comes to details, fundamentals and structure. He’s a good communicator on how he expects the game to be played, and a lot of the Orioles players have become loyal soldiers. Case in point: Center fielder Adam Jones agreed to sign his long-term deal with the O’s only after he was assured Showalter was committed to staying in Baltimore, underscoring the respect Showalter has earned from his team.

Showalter has done a solid job in rebuilding the rotation and bullpen, using his ability to make adjustments when needed. He’s gotten the pitching staff throwing more strikes and pitching ahead in the count more often than in the past. His juggling at first, third and DH has not been easy, but he’s made it work as he waits for better talent to arrive from the minors. The Orioles are finally relevant again, and Showalter deserves much of the credit.

3. Mike Scioscia, Los Angeles Angels

Like Valentine, Scioscia has had to deal with a surprising amount of adversity. His team sat in the AL West cellar after the first month of the season as Albert Pujols struggled at the plate and his bullpen imploded. The Angels then fired longtime hitting coach and Scioscia’s best friend, Mickey Hatcher. Torii Hunter left the team when his son ran into legal issues. Bobby Abreu was released.

To his credit, Scioscia remained stoic and never wavered. General manager Jerry DiPoto quickly offered his manager help by promoting rookie outfielder Mike Trout and trading for reliever Ernesto Frieri, who has solidified the bullpen. Mark Trumbo found a home in left field. Through it all, Scioscia’s fundamentally sound approach to the game continued to be embraced. His steady hand has the Angels primed to contend with the Rangers for the division title, or at the very least secure one of the two AL wild-card berths.

National League